During Hollywood's golden era, it was common for a picture (they called 'em pictures back then) to be based on a popular stage play. It still happens, but rarely. The biggest and most visible movies are based on comic books these days (they called 'em graphic novels back then, they'll say of us) but maybe we're about to witness a paradigm shift.
Soon to be released is Badass, starring Danny Trejo as "Epic Beard Man," and recently at the Sundance Film Festival I watched Mark Duplass play the guy with the time machine in the internet-gag-based Safety Not Guaranteed. The age of movies based on web memes has begun. If somebody adapts a film from Hitler's Downfall reaction videos, the universe will clearly collapse into itself.
"Safety Not Guaranteed," for those with short memories, was a YTMND gag featuring a personals ad of a nuttily-coiffed man looking for a partner to join him on a time travel adventure. It inspired a number of variants and, as we now see, the imagination of writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow. Indeed, Safety Not Guaranteed kicks off with a magazine reporter (a very funny Jake M. Johnson) who thinks there may be a story behind the man who took out the ad.
He hops in a car to investigate and takes two interns, introverted nerd Karan Soni, and the sarcastic, crying-on-the-inside Aubrey Plaza. They stake out the place, share a motel room and (I bet you didn't see this one coming) learn a lot about life.
Yes, for all of its Safety Not Guaranteed's cutting edge provenance, it is, at root, just another derivative indie comedy. And not even a consistantly funny comedy. It has some strong gags (the magazine pitch session of mundane top ten lists certainly tickled this writer) but the core of the film, the relationship between the young intern and troubled crazy man, didn't come together.
The main problem is that, well, there really isn't anything that cool that happens. Once we're up in the sticks and following our would-be time machine inventor, there are some great wide goal posts for virtually anything to happen. All that does is talk. Lots of talk.
Unfortunately, Aubrey Plaza, funny in supporting roles, doesn't have the goods to shoulder an entire film –- or at least a film with a screenplay lacking in dynamism like this one. Her flat delivery starts off amusing, but by the end is infuriating. I found myself unable to empathize with a character that was basically a plank of wood on the screen. Duplass is okay as the mad professor with whom she falls in love, but doesn't put any English on the ball either, sorry to say.
Oddly enough, the best part of this movie is the B-story – all the non-time travel parts with Jake M. Johnson reuniting with his old high school love. Not only are these scenes funny, clever and touching, they are more subtle in their dealings with the film's main themes: the desire to go back in time and fix what we perceive to be mistakes.
You'd think that Safety Not Guaranteed would at least offer the pleasure of seeing some good, whacked-out science-y stuff, but even this gets served like watered down oatmeal. When Plaza first eavesdrops on Duplass at his grocery store job, we hear snatches of a spiel on quantum mechanics. This, plus some very brief glimpses at some diagrams, are all that you get until two minutes before the end.
As the third act ramps up, hints are dropped that maybe Duplass isn't just a confused, lonely loon after all. Are there people really chasing him? Is he really going to do something with the lasers he's stolen? The film would like us to be rooting and cheering along as our two wounded heroes run toward their destiny, but I just couldn't get myself to care. There were some in the audience, including friends whose opinions I trust, who did, so it's possible you might still come away from Safety Not Guaranteed having a good time.
For me, this film is a waste of an opportunity. It just isn't original past the premise. I can barely recall any of the falling-in-love story beats (you know, the heart of the film) between Plaza and Duplass. It's like the story version of her delivery, off-puttingly unobtrusive. I respect that she's deviating hard from the "manic pixie dream-girl" cliché, but this dream girl put me to sleep.